REAL - REPLICA SEA-DWELLER COMPARISON
© Dr. Peter McClean Millar - August 2006
This review does not try to justify the buying of replica watches. It does not deal with the social, political or economic effects of the replica watch industry and it is not designed to do anything other than educate people. If the fact that people buy fake watches offends you then please stop reading now. Continuing to read this article does not give you the right to slag me off or cast aspersions on my moral fiber as has happened in the past when I have written similar pieces. For those that continue, I hope you learn something worthwhile.
Ask any diver what the ultimate dive watch is and there will be many replies, but I would predict that most of those polled will have only one response. The Rolex Sea-Dweller. On pure specifications alone, it has every right to stake a claim as the ultimate dive watch: water resistant to 4000 feet, Helium Release Valve (HRV), Sapphire crystal, in house chronometer certified movement and over 30 years of use by many of the world's deep sea and saturation divers. If there is one problem with the Sea-Dweller, it comes from its other big number specification: the price. It will cost you around 4000 US dollars to own one. For that reason alone the Rolex brand of watches are probably the most frequently bought replica watches in the world.
The world of fakes and replica watches has come a long way since I bought my first "dodgy Rolex" in Abu Dhabi back in 1989. The case was made of brass which had been chrome plated to make it look like a solid block of stainless steel, but 2 weeks of desert sweat and my wrist started to turn green. Lord only knows where the movement came from but I think it may actually have been Japanese because it actually kept good time. Many people bought those cheap replicas and like me ended up throwing them in a drawer after about 2 or 3 weeks because the plating had started to wear off.
Since the days of that first fake Rolex, I have lived in most of the countries attributed with producing fake watches; China, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore and over the years I have seen how the quality of them has improved to the point that many replicas are virtually indistinguishable, to the untrained eye, from the real thing. Also in those years I have bought a genuine Rolex Airking, which my wife wears, and a genuine 2001 Rolex Sea-Dweller. Even though I bought my SD from a reputable source, I was still worried about the fact that it could possibly be a fake and ended up taking it to an Authorized Dealer to have it verified as genuine. Because of that fear I bought what is considered to be a high end replica Sea-Dweller and set out to educate myself on the state of the Sea-Dweller replica scene.
The replica Sea-Dweller that I purchased is considered to be high end because of the following specifications: it has a solid stainless steel case, a sapphire crystal and uses a genuine Swiss ETA 2836-2 movement. As can be seen in the photo above, on first looks it resembles the genuine Sea-Dweller quite accurately. I gave the replica and the genuine watch to many of my friends and asked them to identify which was the real one. Most were unable to do so. That in itself is not particularly frightening, but what is scary is the fact that there are many unscrupulous people who advertise fake watches for sale as genuine and people pay top dollar for them unaware that they are buying a fake. It is my hope that this review will allow people to know what to look for when they are buying a Sea-Dweller.
The best way to try to show the differences between the replica and genuine Sea-Dweller is to systematically go through the watch and highlight the anomalies. Some will be obvious, some not so.
Normally the first thing anyone looks at when they see a watch is the dial. The dial on the Sea-Dweller is an icon in watch history. Both the Sea-Dweller and the Submariner share the same features and the style and layout has been copied by many legitimate watch manufactures over the years because of the simple and clear layout.
On initial inspection the dials of the replica and genuine SD look to be exactly the same, but closer inspection shows that there are subtle differences. First the size of the luminous hour markers is different. On the genuine dial the markers are smaller and the outer rings not so thick. Next is the actual positioning of the markers. On the genuine dial the minute graduations do not touch the metal rings of the luminous markers. As can be seen on the photo, there is a small gap (about 0.3mm) between the minute graduation and the metal ring of the luminous hour marker.
Next difference is the fonts used both for the writing on the dial and on the date wheel. The font on the replica dial tends to be slightly smaller and blocky. The printing is actually quite well done and is a definite improvement over similar watches I have seen and handled in the past. The Rolex crown printed on the dial is also slightly larger on the genuine SD. The crown prongs are slightly wider as well. The font on the date wheel of the replica is slightly larger, but as can be seen from the image, the manufactures are now using a font which has the numbers 6 and 9 where the loops are closed. In the past, an immediate give away was the use of open 6 and 9s.
Staying with the front of the dial, the next difference is the hands. On the genuine SD the Mercedes symbol is slightly larger and the sweep second hand extends further to the outside of the dial. The fake sweep hand just touches the minute markers whereas the genuine second hand extends to almost the end of them. The luminous coating on the hands and the hour markers is well applied and has the same colour and look as that used on the genuine watch. I don't know what luminous material they use on the replica but it does not glow anywhere near as well as that on the genuine Sea-Dweller.
Whilst the bezel inserts are pretty much identical on both watches, they are not normally a good indication of whether the watch is genuine or not. Many older genuine Sea-Dwellers have aftermarket bezel inserts primarily because the owner went for the cheaper aftermarket option.
The next major difference between the watches can easily be seen if both are side by side, but it is not so apparent if the replica is handled on its own. Because of the higher depth rating of the Sea-Dweller the watch is slightly thicker than that of the Submariner. It also means that the dial on the Sea-Dweller had to be made about 1mm smaller than that of the Submariner. At the time of writing, the replica manufacturers use the same case for both the Sea-Dweller and the Submariner. This means that the replica dial is bigger than that used in the genuine watch. It is also noticeable how the slope of the replica's chapter ring is greater. Overall it gives the impression of a much larger dial. To many people this is not a bad thing as there is a definite wish in the dive watch fraternity that Rolex should make a larger Sea-Dweller. As I have said, the larger dial on the replica is not particularly noticeable unless you have a side by side comparison.
Over the years and the many generations of fake Rolex Sea-Dwellers and Submariners, the things that was probably easiest to fix and a definite give away are the crown guards. Yet surprisingly even with the new "high quality" replicas, the crown guards are still not right. The replica crown guards are thicker and have a slightly different recess. Many people who buy the replica Sea-Dwellers modify the guards to make them closer to the shape of the real ones.
Next is the crown itself. These have gotten much better over the years but depending on where the replica watch was made some are still better than others. On the genuine crown, the "plateau" (I don't know what else to call it) on which the Rolex crown and 3 dots to indicate that it is a Triplock crown is slightly more raised and not quite as wide as that on the fake crown. Where the replica crowns have also improved is the sealing. They now use large o-rings just like the genuine article.
Looking at the photo of the crowns brings me to the major item which I always look at when trying to gauge if a Sea-Dweller is genuine or not. The bezel. The genuine watch is on the top. Notice the difference in the depth of the bezels. The genuine bezel is significantly thicker due to an extra ridge on the underside. This is due to the much thicker crystal on the Sea-Dweller which is needed because of the increased depth rating. Both bezels have a 120 click turning movement. The genuine one feels slightly tighter but not really noticeably so. However, it is easy enough to "pop" the bezel on the replica and increase the tension on the retaining click spring to tighten the overall movement.
The final thing worth noting on the front of the watch is the small etched Rolex crown at the 6 o'clock position on the crystal. Since about 2002 Rolex have etched a small almost un-noticeable crown into the sapphire crystal. Mine does not have it because it is a K series from 2001 and was produced before the etching was introduced. As the replica SD I have does not have the crown etching either, I have had to borrow a photo to show it. Most of the modern replicas have the crown etching on the crystal. Mine didn't.
One of the defining things about the Rolex Sea-Dweller is the Helium Release Valve. This was developed in the late 1960s by Rolex and Doxa and although Rolex hold the patent, Doxa actually had the first HRV equipped divers watch on sale to the general public in 1969. The Doxa SUB 300T Conquistador. The HRV was developed to eliminate the need to unscrew the crown when saturation divers were decompressing. Under pressure, helium is able to infiltrate the seals on dive watches and form gaseous helium inside the watch. If this gas is not released it will expand as the diver decompresses and can blow the crystal off the watch. Many dive watches now have HRVs but the Sea-Dweller is arguably the most famous. I believe the genuine HRV is made of Titanium and looks darker than the stainless steel case. I don't know what material the fake HRV is made of or even if it works but it looks pretty convincing.
I don't know when it happened but a couple of years ago Rolex stopped making the Sea-Dweller case with drilled holes in the lugs for the springbars. As you can see from the photos of the HRV, the replica is based on the new model as it does not have these holes in the side of the case.
Moving on to the back of the watch, there used to be a dead give away which seems to have been rectified in the latest models. On the genuine SD the caseback has the wordsˇ¦.ROLEX OYSTER Original Gas Escape Valve. Many of the older replicas had the following erroneous words: RO LEX and Esoape. There was a space in the word Rolex and an o was used instead of a c. Generally the quality of the caseback is pretty good. The font is pretty close but the Rolex crown is a bit smaller. The black ink or paint used on the replica caseback has a tendency to fall out very quickly unlike the genuine which is particularly permanent. The holographic stickers have also been improving over the last few years but still have a way to go to be perfect. But in many cases both genuine and replica owners remove the sticker anyway. Interestingly enough, many people who couldn't tell the difference between my 2 watches thought the replica was genuine because it still had the sticker on it. The reference number for the Sea-Dweller is 16600 but in some cases the replica manufactures put a sticker with 16610 on the case back. 16610 is the reference number for the Submariner.
The other thing that has been improving steadily over the years has been the oyster flip-lock bracelet. Genuine Sea-Dweller bracelets are often criticized as being "tinny" and "flimsy" and not befitting a 4000 dollar watch. I do tend to agree with these impressions, however, the bracelet is still substantial and comfortable and considering the large springbars used in the genuine one, very unlikely to part company with the watch under normal circumstances.
The replica bracelet looks and feels almost exactly like the genuine one. From the solid end links to the hidden divers extension in the clasp and the screwed links, even though the stampings are not quite so sharp, the bracelet smacks of the real thing except for one flaw. The sides of the genuine bracelet are polished, the replica bracelet has brushed sides.
The give away for the Sea-Dweller is that the genuine bracelet reference number is 93160. The replicas not only use the Submariner case but also the Submariner bracelet which is reference number 93250. The modern replicas also have the SD reference number and a serial stamped into the case between the lugs. This has been the practice for several years now. What has changed is that the bracelets also have their serial number stamped into the Solid End Links.
Ultimately the only true way to find out id a Sea-Dweller is genuine or not is to open it. The thing that sets the Rolex apart from most other watches is the fact that it uses an in-house movement, the Rolex caliber 3135 which has a frequency of 28,800 vph uses 31 jewels and is automatic winding in both directions. This movement is COSC rated and my SD keeps time at around -2 seconds a day. That's pretty impressive in my book and isn't surprising given the fact that the 3135 was built for accuracy, longevity and ease of servicing. The replica uses a genuine Swiss ETA 2836-2. It has the same frequency (28,800 vph) as the 3135 and has 25 jewels and like the 3135 is automatic. The power reserve of the ETA is 42 hours which is less than the 3135's reserve of 50 hours. The really interesting thing here is that the replica keeps better time than the genuine SD. It is losing 2 seconds in 48 hours. This is unbelievable for a fake watch straight out of the box. Even though the Rolex 3135 movement is an in-house, specially designed and constructed movement, lets not forget that ETA have been in existence almost 50 years longer than Rolex and produce movements which are the base ebauches for many of today's Swiss watch manufacturers such as Breitling, Omega and IWC. I think I really just got lucky with the movement in the replica.
Looking at the images of the replica movement, it can be seen that the replica manufacturers have gone quite a way to make the ETA 2836-2 look like the 3135. It certainly looks good and could fool the untrained eye but anyone with any experience of Rolex movements could spot it a mile away. I didn't have the photo I took of my replica movement when I wrote this comparison, so I have borrowed a photograph from a replica site and removed their logo. Jocke was kind enough to allow me to use his excellent photo of the Rolex 3135 movement.
So there you have it. I hope that people have learned a bit about the Sea-Dweller in both its genuine and replica guise. For a really in-depth look at the genuine article, I would recommend Steve Hughes superb review. Another site well worth a visit is Jocke's watch wallpaper site where there are spectacular photos of Rolex watches.
As it stands in late August 2006, the quality and accuracy of the replica Sea-Dwellers is pretty good, but there are still some easily identifiable errors which make it possible for people to spot a fake one. Hopefully this review will help inform people about just what to look for when buying a second hand Sea-Dweller.